Tuesday, January 4, 2011

False Grit

If you want to see a textbook example of the difference between a faithfully-filmed novel and a good movie, go see the Coen Brothers True Grit and then rent the Henry Hathaway original from (OMFG, really?) 1969. The latter, for all its softening and mythologizing of the source material, is a much better movie, by which I mean it works as a film. The current version? Not so much. As I said to my online friend Molly Matera, when the death of a horse is the only time I get emotionally involved, then the movie has big problems.

What problems? Generally, a feeling of weightlessness, like there are story beats to be hit, as opposed to a story being told. It’s like the movie was made with the book as a reference or the original film as a reference, instead of as a film in its own right, which means two things: (1) everything feels like a comment instead of a statement; and (2) everyone acting in it is self-aware, as opposed to natural. In this version, Rooster Cogburn is smaller than life, and instead of feeling natural, it feels like a conscious choice NOT to be John Wayne. In this version, the cocky Texas Ranger LeBoeuf is less than comical, and as a result less of a foil for Cogburn, and less of an education to Mattie Ross, who is in turn more studied and less spunky than Kim Darby. And say what you want about Kim Darby as an actress, but in the original, you liked her and wanted her to succeed. In this version, Hailee Steinfield proves she can wrap her tongue around the dialogue, but never wraps her arms around your heart.

And I’m not saying you have to love these people, but you should care about them. I guess. Except that, if you take this version on its own terms, you’re not even asked to do that. You’re only asked to watch, and in return, you’re given, well, satire that doesn't get laughs, a quest plot that seems over before it begins, campfire scenes in the cold night air where you never see anybody's breath, violence without wounds (like shouting without an echo, if you know what I mean), scenes which feel like out-takes from Dead Man (like the guy in the bearskin, complete with bear head), and sequences which are presumably supposed to be funny, like the drunken marksmanship contest, but are just embarrassing. The odd thing is, everybody is obviously in the same movie, and playing on the same level. It’s just not a movie you’d want to see more than once, and the level is below, well, North To Alaska, for instance, or The Sons of Katie Elder, two other Henry Hathaway westerns with John Wayne in ‘em. (Go rent those too.)

Also: pretty much every gunshot in the movie is in the trailer (except for that marksmanship contest), so don’t go into this expecting a two-hour shoot-em-up.

Also part 2: echoing "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms," the song that Robert Mitchum sings throughout Night Of The Hunter? That’s not film, Coens; that’s film school.


april said...

Nicely dissected.

amanda said...

what's so wonderful about your reviews is that they say what I'm thinking but don't know that I'm thinking it. I knew the movie wasn't good, but it wasn't that it was bad, either. I just knew I wouldn't bother to watch it again ...and you summed up why. kudos. you're so smart, my friend.

(does that make sense? I wish you could write my comments, too!)